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The magic of owning a custom bicycle

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2 Dec 2015

There's nothing like riding a bike that suits you perfectly. Phil Taylor, organiser of the Bespoked bike show, explains why.

In the same way you might visit a tailor to get the perfect suit, a visit to a bicycle framebuilder will lead to a bike that fits you exactly. The cloth and the cut of the suit say much more about both the wearer and the tailor than the sum of the parts, and it’s the same with a bespoke bike. It will feel like it’s an extension of its owner, instilling them with a confidence no off-the-peg item ever could. Those in the know will recognise the quality mark of the creator. Others will simply see a stylish, well-fitting product.

Richmond Denton, a custom bicycle owner, sums it up: ‘When a bike fits you perfectly and enhances your athletic attributes, it automatically makes you a better cyclist. I swing my leg over the top tube and I cycle a foot taller, brimming with confidence.’

Festka Doppler Custom Bicycle

Tony Corke, bicycle fit and design instructor at The Bicycle Academy, explains how this feeling comes about. ‘The reason that the custom bicycle is such a wonderful cycling experience is because of the time and attention to detail that goes into designing and making it. It’s down to the marginal gains accrued during the fitting, design and manufacture processes that result in significant improvements to the function of the bicycle for its rider.’ Those gains come in the form of measurable advantages and many things that just feel right.

Much of this feeling of rightness comes down to comfort. The fact that many of today’s riders have problems with comfort is revealed by the growth of a whole industry dedicated to ensuring that off-the-peg bicycles are fitted correctly to the rider. Andy Morgan of Kinetic-One in Gloucestershire has been fitting bicycles since 1999. He says, ‘Poorly fitting bikes and poor riding positions always lead to loss of performance and speed, reduced motivation and, ultimately, to injury. Riding a bike is about so much more than just having a decent bit of kit – it’s about freedom, space and even about mastery over our environment and of our own will. Whether you race or you ride purely for pleasure, it’s supposed to feel good. It’s a shame, then, that so many people are uncomfortable and hence underperforming on their bikes.

‘Often this is simply because they’re unaware just how unique their body is, and that their riding strengths and weaknesses – limb length, muscle strength, spine shape, weight and flexibility – are unique to them too. Chances are that if they don’t know this, they won’t know that a bike can be designed, built and configured to support their strengths and to counteract their weaknesses. Put simply, a made-to-measure bike can catapult performance into a new dimension, improving body position and comfort, pedal stroke efficiency, muscle usage and energy consumption, and reduce wind resistance. In short, you’ll get faster and it will feel easier.’

One of the other major benefits of owning a bicycle made for you is that the material used will suit your vital statistics and so is likely to save considerable weight. Robert Wade of Swallow Bespoke Bicycles explains, ‘A bespoke frame’s material and tubing is chosen to suit your weight, riding style and the type of riding you plan to do. It will be perfectly balanced and will feel a pleasure to ride.  A mass-produced 56cm frame, say, will be made to cope with the maximum weight rider expected to ride that size of frame, which could be as much as 16 stone (101kg). That means it will be totally over-built, and too stiff and heavy if you are a 10-stone (63kg) rider.’ Hence, the iconic bicycle tubing maker Reynolds has around 500 different tubes available for tailoring a frame to meet the requirements of the rider.

In 1935 Reynolds launched its famous 531 tubing (which refers to the 5-3-1 ratio of elements in the alloy) and it’s still produced today. Reynold’s 753 tubing was launched in 1976, followed by 853 in 1995, then 953 in 2007. As well as steel, titanium tubes account for 15% of its UK business.

The company enjoyed huge success with 27 riders winning the Tour de France astride Reynolds tubing, starting with Charly Gaul in 1958 followed by the likes of Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, LeMond and Indurain. It was a real British success story, and the Reynolds factory remained on the same site for 90 years, until in 2007 it finally relocated from Hay Hall in Tyseley to a modern factory building in Shaftmoor Lane – still in Birmingham.

Choosing your weapon

If you want a bicycle that’s fast, stylish, comfortable, tough, light and, most importantly, conceived by you, you need to pay a visit to a framebuilder. But as all the framebuilders are able to provide you with a superbly fitting and handling bicycle, how do you choose which one to go with?

Bespoked – The UK Handmade Bicycle Show (running from Friday 15th - Sunday 17th April 2016 in Bristol) is a good place to start your research. Framebuilders from around the world will be exhibiting their bikes and are on hand to offer advice and discuss your future custom bicycle. Most of the bicycles on show have been commissioned, rather than being built just for display. They’re the results of the partnerships between customer and maker, and reveal the different styles of each framebuilder and the different materials that they use.

You can choose between steel, titanium, aluminum, carbon fibre, wood, bamboo or maybe a mix of two or three of them. Each has its pros and cons, but by far the most popular is steel. It has stood the test of time and is the material to which all others are compared. New lightweight steel tubes (Reynolds 953 and Columbus XCr) are comparable in weight to titanium and can make frames only 400g or so heavier than an average carbon frame.

Swallow Columbus XCr

Innovations have ensured that Reynolds tubing remains a staple for today’s bespoke framebuilders. ‘What has kept us ahead of the game for all these years is our strong belief in product development,’ says Reynolds’ managing director Keith Noronha. ‘We’re not afraid to try and be the first in the field at something’.

The different grades reflect different elements used in the steel, the thickness and the proportions of the butting process. Generally speaking, the higher the number, the lighter and stronger the steel will be. But Noronha provides a word of warning.

‘The higher grades are much more difficult to deal with,’ he says. ‘Although they’re popular with experienced framebuilders, the margin for error is much smaller.’

What would he suggest for those wanting their first stab at building a steel frame? ‘Start with something like 525 tubing; or for a solely UK-manufactured product – use 631 instead. Both of these options are much more forgiving and allow first-timers to make less costly mistakes.’

For some people the way the tubes are joined by the artisan is of primary importance and is their main reason to choose that framebuilder. Lugs are the traditional method, where a tube is brazed into a socket (or lug). These can be hand carved, polished, chromed and outlined into the most exquisite shapes. Another option is the perfectly smooth transition of the fillet braze, while some prefer the clinical efficiency of TIG welding.

Finishing Touches

'After the frame, the next most important choice is a fork as it will directly affect the handling and feel of the bike,’ says brand manager at Upgrade Bikes, Rory Hitchens. ‘There is a limited choice of good aftermarket forks and it’s best to go for a reputable brand such as TRP, which produces the proven thru-axle, disc-specific CX Fork.

‘Wheels are the next big choice and it’s wise to spend as much as you can afford. Box-profile rims are classic, but why not go for deep section carbon? The Reynolds range, particularly the 46 Aero, are insanely fast yet have superior handling in crosswinds.’

When you’ve chosen your groupset there’s still customising to be done. Disc brakes such as the mechanical TRP Spyre and hydro-mechanical TRP HY-RD can be universally fitted to any existing group (provided your frame has disc mounts) and chainsets such as the Turn Zayante M3 offer a sleek, all-black appearance to keep eyes firmly fixed to the bling of your frame.

‘The Praxis Works rings on the Turn cranks are cold-forged, allowing the teeth to have micro-features for slicker shifting,’ says Hitchens. ‘The Praxis Wide Range cassette is a great option for those looking for a deep gear from 11-40T. And there’s a wealth of great parts out there to ensure your bespoke bike looks just right. It’s all part of the fun.’

Dream factory

Once the seed has been sown about having a bicycle made, it’s amazing how soon you realise that, while there are elements of off-the-peg bikes that you like, there is nothing in existence that’s got it all. This is where the magic happens and you start to create your dream bicycle – a bike that does not yet exist.

‘I ride a Donhou and it was worth every penny and every minute of my life that it absorbed during its gestation,’ says proud owner Ian Vincent. ‘Each time I ride it I’m reminded of what everyone else is missing out on: the feel, the handling, the perfect riding position, the kids shouting ‘nice bike mate’, the folks at the coffee stop staring like they’ve just seen a celebrity. It has heart, it has soul. Most importantly it has my heart and soul.’

How much input you have is down to you, but the more you put in, the greater that first ride will be. A couple of hours on the internet can get you so deep into how geometry affects handling you could become an expert, or realise a lifetime of research awaits.

Hallett 650 Adventure

Robert Wade says, ‘Ordering a bespoke frame is a process that should be fully involving, a consultation between you and the builder - after all, it’s a frame that will be lovingly crafted for you. You actually have input and control over how your bike should look and feel, and it’s an experience that should be savoured and enjoyed. At the beginning of the journey you will be guided to the correct fit and geometry for your body and riding style. This will take into account any injuries or other physical considerations so that you can be comfortable and efficient on the bike. You then decide how it will look and the components that will be fitted. It becomes your bike, the journey continues as you take the first ride and then lasts a lifetime.’

All well and good, you may say, but what about the cost? Well, yes, a custom handmade bicycle may cost anywhere upward of £1,000, just for the frame, and then you could spend the same again on wheels, saddle and components. But this is something you will keep forever, and because of the time and financial investment it will be cherished. Those who have made the leap of faith have nothing but praise for how going bespoke has been the best decision they ever made.

Bespoked opens to the public on Friday 15th April 2016 from 2pm to 7pm, Saturday 16th 9.30am to 6pm, Sunday 17th April 10am to 4.30pm. Advance tickets cost £10 from bespoked.cc or £15 on the door

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